Changing the World at Tours
Somewhere in north central France, between the small towns of Poitier and Tours lies a battlefield. No one is absolutely sure of its exact location now, but almost thirteen centuries ago, in the year 732 AD, a battle took place there that was so fundamental to making the world what it is today, that it is described by historians as a “macro historical event”, a major turning point at one of the most important moments in the history of the human race. It was at this place, now lost to history, that the European culture and identity, its almost genetic belief in the personal worth, the rights and the value of the individual and with it the identity, culture and future of America, the nation that would try to embody those beliefs, came close to dying a thousand years before it was born.
To understand how important the events of 732 are to the world we live in, we have to travel back in time to the year 570 AD and the City of Mecca, a prominent merchant center controlled by the Quraysh tribe.
Abū al-Qāsim Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah was born in Mecca in the year 570 AD. An orphan by the time he was six, Muhammad was raised first by his grandfather then by an uncle who adopted him. As he matured, he traveled throughout the Arabian Peninsula working for his uncle. In his twenties he married a wealthy older widow. Her money gave him the means to continue traveling and studying the cultures and religions he encountered, including Judaism and Christianity. By the time he reached his forties, he was spending a much of his time in solitude and in deep contemplation of fundamental questions of existence. Then, one night, according to Muhammad, an angel accosted him and made him recite some special words. He did as he was ordered and as he departed Muhammad heard the angel say, “Oh Muhammad, you are the messenger of God and I am Gabriel.”
Profoundly moved, Muhammad began a personal battle against the pagan, idol worshipping people of Mecca, declaring, like both Jews and Christians, that there was only one God. In 619 AD, he reported that the angel Gabriel had returned and personally guided him on an actual journey to heaven where he not only met Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but also stood in the presence of God.
By the time he was forty, Muhammad was living in the city of Mecca and continuing to make claims that were initially rejected by many who heard them. The most important of these claims was that God, still working through the angel Gabriel, had started dictating the words to the Koran, the central religious book of what would be called the Muslim faith or Islam. To those who study the development of cults, the process reported by Muhammad will sound familiar, but like Christianity, the cult-like appearance eventually gave way to a vast movement.
Muhammad began to preach his message declaring that there was only one God called Allah. Although the belief in one god was fundamental to the Jews and Christians living throughout the region, it went against the pagan beliefs of many of his fellow Meccans. His claims of personal meetings with Gabriel, Abraham, Moses and Jesus did not go over well either, and opposition against him included threats of violence. Perhaps the greatest concern for his detractors in Mecca was the possibility that Muhammad’s preaching of a new faith, so different from their pagan beliefs, would curtail the lucrative pagan pilgrimages to that city and damage the earning power of the Quraysh tribal leaders.
Problems for Muhammad increased when his wife and then his uncle died. This forced Muhammad, now without their protection, to flee Mecca to the oasis of Yathrib. Later followers, recognizing the importance of this event, renamed the town “Medina”, "The city of the Prophet." His struggles against this opposition, however, were not of the “turn the other cheek” variety.
The proximity of Medina to the important caravan routes used by the wealthy leaders of Mecca provided a profitable and convenient way for Muhammad and his followers to boost their own economy and damage the economy of their enemies in Mecca. Raids on the rich caravans helped the budding faith accumulate much needed loot and sent a message to those who opposed them. Those raids led directly to a major confrontation with Mecca and a massive change in the fortunes of the new faith.
Undoubtedly, Muhammad had an abundance of charisma. Within twenty years of that first vision, Islam was the dominant religion in the formerly pagan town. He then targeted the entire Arabian Peninsula. Those tribes that refused to convert peacefully were converted by force.
Muhammad died in Medina in 632 at the age of 61. Within three years of his death, the Islamic faith had taken over the Arabian Peninsula, but the conquest of Arabia was only the beginning. A hundred years later, the Muslims were a massive military power and Islam was the dominant faith throughout the Middle East. Its control stretched to the western borders of China, across North Africa and Egypt, throughout what was then the Byzantine Empire and Persia. In 711 the Muslims crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Five years later they controlled the peninsula as far north as the Pyrenees Mountains. Beyond that barrier, the land that would one day be France, beckoned.
In the late spring of 732 a well-trained, relentlessly victorious Muslim army of at least 80,000 men, brilliantly-led by the Emir of Córdoba, Abdul al-Rahman Al Ghafiqi, together with their wives and children, entered a weakened, fragmented territory, ripe for conquest, subjugation and conversion. The presence of their women and children signaled this was not just a massive raid. The Muslims were there to stay and there appeared to be little the outnumbered and poorly equipped French defenders could do to stop them.
Muslim successes came quickly and often, and when they did suffer the occasional setback, they learned from those defeats. Their horsemen eventually overwhelmed every force sent against them. The Muslims devastated towns and villages and Christian centers across southern France, especially targeting the rich Christian churches, abbeys, cathedrals and monasteries. As an added brutal touch, they usually massacred the Christian clergy. In addition to the vast hoards of loot and slaves they collected, their main goal was total conquest of the country, then known as Gaul, and the conversion of all its inhabitants to Islam.
Their most impressive opposition seemed to come from Eudes, the Duke of Aquitaine, who managed to raise a formidable army. Throughout all of his adult life, Eudes, like many of his fellow Christian leaders, had struggled, either to maintain his power or increase it, usually against one of his fellow Christian leaders. He was no stranger to fighting, but his army had little impact against the power of the Muslim forces. Soundly defeated by al-Rahman, the Duke fled to Bordeaux, even then an important seaport, but the town was quickly captured by the invaders with the usual widespread killing of its citizens, the taking of slaves and the looting and burning of Christian churches. Eudes managed to escape, but with his army shattered he was on his own.
The next target for the Muslims would be the beautiful abbey of Saint-Martin near the wealthy city of Tours. Duke Eudes hadn’t given up yet, but he was struggling against an enemy that didn’t merely want to take away the Duke’s power or even his life. The Muslims were determined to destroy every facet of life that Eudes and his entire people had ever known. The problem for Eudes was that his only possible help, and his would-be savior, was one of his bitterest enemies: Charles Martel, powerful military leader and Duke of the Franks.
The 46-year-old Charles had earned the name “Martel”, meaning “hammer” through years of successful wars against many of his fellow Christians including Eudes, but Eudes was desperate and Charles Martel was ready to listen. Both men knew that the stakes in this contest against the Muslims were far higher than anything they had every faced in their own wars for dominance, and they were ready to make a deal. Martel agreed to raise an army and fight the Muslims, but for a price. In exchange, Eudes would have to recognize Martel as his overlord and pledge his loyalty. All Charles Martel had to do to win that recognition and loyalty was raise that army and defeat the rampaging Muslims.
As it turned out, raising the army was easier than it should have been. Martel had gained a reputation as a courageous, exceptional military leader. He also had the solid support of many fellow military men and very quickly he managed to recruit a large force from among the people of different regions, many of whom had fought against one another in the past. It helped that stories of the devastation and horrors perpetrated by the invading Muslims had the Christian world terrified. Unity of purpose was not a problem.
Charles Martel succeeded in gathering his army on high ground between Tours and the town of Poitier before al-Rahman and his Muslims arrived. Positioned on the high ground, the Christians held a distinct advantage and al-Rahman knew it. To counter the Christian advantage, instead of launching an immediate assault, he decided to wait until all his forces arrived. When they did, it must have been clear to Martel and his men that they were outnumbered.
For almost a week al-Rahman sent out small patrols and skirmishers trying to lure the Christians off the high ground and into open battle, but Martel was too experienced to take the bait. Finally, on October 25th, with his men growing increasingly impatient to wipe out the Christian defenders and get on with their looting and Muslim conversions before winter set in, al-Rahman ordered the attack.
Holding the high ground helped, but Martel’s situation was grim. Most of the Muslim attackers wore armor and were on horseback. Few if any of the defenders had armor and they had no effective cavalry. What they had instead was Charles Martel, better tactics and a profound incentive. They knew that if they failed, not only their lives but their entire world would end.
The Muslims hit hard, striking at the Christians with their deadly swords, but Martel’s men held. The odds were heavily in favor of the Muslims and in wave after wave the invaders pounded at the Christians, but still Martel’s men held. The battle continued throughout the day, with heavy casualties on both sides, but that meant the Muslims with their superior numbers were in the better position to absorb the attrition and eventually triumph.
The only tactic al-Rahman bothered to employ was brute force. He must have been extremely confident that it would work as well against Charles Martel as it had against other opponents. Charles Martel, however, knew that brute force would not work for him, so he tried something else.
As the bulk of his forces struggled against the powerful Muslim onslaught, a small contingent, possibly led by Duke Eudes, quickly outflanked al-Rahman and headed for the Muslim camp. It was filled with the families of the Muslim soldiers, the loot from all the towns and churches they had ransacked across southern France, and with human booty - their hundreds of recently captured Christians destined for slavery.
As soon as al Rahman’s men realized what was happening, a large portion broke off their battle against the Christians and raced for their camp, their families and their loot. With his army appearing to be in retreat, al-Rahman tried to rally his remaining men. As he did so, he was surrounded by a group of Martel’s men and killed.
With their leader dead, and their families and their plunder in danger, any desire for continued battle disappeared and the imagined Muslim retreat became a real one. The next morning, the Franks, still prepared for battle, found the Muslim camp deserted. Al-Rahman’s Muslim army was on its way back over the Pyrenees and out of France.
The defeat of the Muslims at Tours was a decisive moment in world history, and though they never again posed such a massive threat against Christian Europe, it would be another 27 years before the last Muslim invaders were completely pushed back to Spain. After 759, no Muslim army ever crossed the Pyrenees again. France and all of Western and Northern Europe would remain Christian at least until the next threat arrived.
The question is would it have mattered? If the Muslim faith had spread throughout Europe, and Judeo-Christian thought and philosophy never gained a permanent foothold, if Christianity had petered out or been wiped out 1300 years ago, what difference would it have made to Europe today or to the nation that would someday be America?
In their book, “7 Tipping Points that Saved the World” authors Chris and Ted Stewart explain:
First. “In fundamentalist Islam there is no law but religious law, the Sharia or Holy Law of Islam. Sharia law is divine, the word of God. And it is all encompassing, regulating every aspect of life: civil, commercial, criminal, and religious. As such, to the devout Muslim, the Holy Law of Islam is all the law that is needed…”
“It is therefore absurd that there would be any need for mortal men to meet for the purpose of creating new law. It is absurd to think that a parliament or a congress or any other deliberative body could better the Holy Law of Islam. This leaves no room in strict Islam for self-government or representative government.”
The second point the writers make is that in Islam, “the idea of separation of church and state is utterly foreign”.
Their third point is most telling. They stress that the concept of freedom has a very limited meaning in Islam and quote British-American historian, Bernard Lewis, in "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, on 18th and 19th century Ottoman political thought":
"Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle-Eastern usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not a political term. It meant one who was not a slave, and unlike the West, Muslims did not use slavery and freedom as political metaphors. For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God’s law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles."
As the Stewarts explain further, the Islamic understanding of freedom and justice means something quite different than it does in the culture that grew out of Christian Europe. To the Muslims: “…you were either a slave or you were not. Such a limited understanding of personal liberty made it nearly impossible for a faithful follower of Islam to think it was necessary, or even good, to make laws that guaranteed any further individual freedom…”
Translated to a distant continent and 13 struggling colonies a thousand years later, without that cultural philosophy buried within the Christian ideal and slowly nurtured in Christian Europe, the following words might never have been written:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Without those words and that ideal and that long ago Battle of Tours, America might never have been born.
To anyone who ignores history it is difficult to accept the possibility that an invasion and a lost battle that took place almost a thousand years ago could have had anything to do with America, but this invasion and this battle were special. The year was 1066, the place, Hastings, England. Duke William of Normandy, fighting to advance his claim on what was then the English throne, had invaded Anglo Saxon England with a large army of his French-speaking Normans. Just three weeks earlier England’s King Harold and his army had successfully repulsed an invasion by the Norwegians, killed the Norwegian king and destroyed his army. Now, in the middle of October, Anglo Saxon England faced another invasion.
The opposing forces met near Senlac Hill, a low rise of 275 feet, about six miles from the town of Hastings. The English took advantage of their early arrival and occupied the high ground, fully prepared to meet the invaders.
The battle began about 9:00 that morning. King Harold and his English warriors had managed to counter the Norman forces throughout most of the day and were near final victory when an arrow, most likely fired at random by some unknown Norman archer, struck Harold in the eye, killing him. The death of their king broke the will of England’s Anglo Saxon army and they fled the field, leaving William of Normandy the victor and, eventually, the new King of England. He became known to history as “William the Conqueror”.
The Norman victory changed England forever. The Germanic Anglo Saxon, spoken by the “English” at the time of the Norman Conquest wasn’t English and it would be unrecognizable today. In a few years, with Norman nobility controlling most of England, Norman laws and the French language replaced Anglo Saxon laws and language in all government offices, and the Anglo Saxon culture was changed forever. But that change helped create the nation called England.
As the years passed, the “invaders” and their descendants slowly found themselves becoming more English than French. Like the people they had conquered, they too had changed profoundly. The language they spoke was no longer French. Intermarriage and the passage of time found them identifying with England instead of their original homeland. As for the Anglo Saxon population, thousands of new words entered their language, pronunciation of Anglo Saxon words changed, so did the grammar. The language was becoming truly English. As time passed, the Anglo Saxon language, once spoken by the majority of England’s people, was transformed into the modern language spoken throughout the world – the language known as “English”.
What makes this event so unusual, perhaps even remarkable, is that it was utterly dependent on one chance in a million. If that unknown archer’s bow been held on a slightly different angle, the arrow that killed Harold and helped create a new nation and the English language, would certainly have missed its target. It was an arrow that changed history and helped make America. Had that arrow missed, no one in America would speak English because it wouldn’t exist.
A Mongol Drunk Saves America
Half a millennium after Christian Europe was saved from Muslim invasion, the continent once again faced an invasion that threatened a much more deadly outcome than slavery or conversion to Islam. From far to the East came a horde of such ferocity and destructive power that to this very day the effects of that invasion are felt in many parts of Eastern Europe.
The invaders this time were the Mongols an East-Central Asian ethnic group native to Mongolia and China's Inner Mongolia Region.
The great Mongol Empire had its beginning in the mind of a young Mongol named “Temujin” who was born about 1162 AD. At first, Temujin didn’t appear to have much to offer. His father died when Temujin was quite young, possibly murdered by his father’s old enemies, the Tartars, and when Temujin’s older half-brother attempted to take over the family, Temujin killed him.
Life for a Mongol, even a child, was usually brutal. By the time he was twenty, Temujin had learned to use that brutality and started his slow climb to power by gathering capable supporters around his leadership and by building a personal army of 20,000 men. He was able to increase his power significantly by eliminating the ancient divisions among the Mongol tribes and uniting them under his rule. Intensely loyal and generous to those who supported him, he was pathologically vicious to anyone who opposed him. Death for any opponent who fell into his clutches was usually slow and agonizing. After his defeat of a tribe called the Taichi'ut, he had all their leaders boiled alive. In addition to his cruelty, which he used as a psychological weapon, he was skilled in the use of deception and in exploiting the weaknesses of his enemies.
From the very beginning, his entire army was made up of cavalry. His Mongol warriors were almost supernaturally superb horsemen, their skill and mobility was unmatched. By 1205 Temujin controlled all of Mongolia. He gave himself a title that would reverberate through history: “Genghis Khan”.
Six years later, with his conquest and control of all the Mongol tribes complete, he set his sights on China, known then as Cathay. As his army moved south, Chinese leaders must have looked upon the Mongol invasion as somewhat ludicrous. China was a nation of some 50 million people. Despite its glorious title, Genghis Khan’s “Great Mongol Nation” with barely one million people was one-fiftieth the size of China. It would have been difficult, at first, for China to take the invasion seriously. That attitude changed quickly.
Moving his forces in what a much later time would call a “blitzkrieg”, the Mongol cavalry stormed into China, living off the land and on what they could take from the towns and villages they assaulted. In addition to his effective use of deception, Genghis Khan successfully used spies, bribery, and often his enemies’ own weapons, but it was in his use of terror that Genghis Khan reached a level of expertise unmatched for centuries. To attack a position, the Mongols would herd men, women and children from nearby towns and villages to the front of their advancing cavalry. Using the local population as human shields against the Chinese arrows and spears, the Mongols would advance on a town. Should a town choose to defy Genghis Khan, as soon as it was taken, as it usually was, the entire population would be put to death and the town utterly destroyed.
The Chinese possessed technologically advanced weapons that should have been able to wipe out the Mongol invaders, but Genghis Khan captured the weapons, bought off the Chinese engineers, weapons experts and builders, then turned the weapons against the Chinese defenders.
Within four years the Mongols succeeded in conquering China as far south as the Yangtze River, destroying its capital city along with countless other cities and towns, taking slaves and loot and turning the country into little more than a vast pasture for the Mongol herds.
China was only the beginning. Genghis Khan’s next campaign took him south into Central Asia. It was essentially a campaign of revenge and punishment after envoys he had sent to the Shah of Central Asia were murdered. It took several years, but by the time Genghis Khan was done, Central Asia was a wasteland. Historians estimate the death toll at more than two million people.
Genghis Khan died in 1227, but his death didn’t stop the Mongols. Shortly before his death, Genghis Khan chose his third son Ögödei as his successor. Ögödei spent the first few years of his reign spending what his father had looted. Finally, with most of the empire’s wealth gone, he took up where his father left off.
Under Ögödei the Mongols raided from Central Asia into Russia and took huge swaths of Russian territory into their empire, destroying great cites and killing hundreds of thousands in the process. They also occupied Georgia and Armenia and moved into the eastern sections of Persia. As they moved, the destruction and death toll climbed. In 1236 they began their invasion of what is now Eastern Europe. Poles, Hungarians, French, Germans Austrians, the best fighting men from across Europe stormed out in their tens of thousands to stop the Mongols, usually outnumbering them, but their numbers made no difference. Most of those warrior knights of Europe were massacred. In Hungary and Poland alone, almost a hundred thousand knights were lost. The devastation across what was now the Mongol world was horrific. The only goal seems to have been to cause death and destruction. Estimates, though impossible to determine accurately, place that toll at more than 40 million men women and children.
Western Europe, still fragmented into small kingdoms and principalities, but slowly emerging from a period sometimes called the Dark Ages, was exposed and almost defenseless. In its great cities and towns, in its remarkable universities, the first faint glimmerings of freedom, equality, learning, individual worth, science – ideas that would transform the world, were beginning to blossom. Now all that potential and thousands, perhaps millions of people, faced utter destruction at the hands of a relentless, pitiless foe. Its great cities, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Cologne, ancient centers of culture and learning faced what Kiev and so many other towns and cities had already suffered: total annihilation.
It didn’t happen. Thousands of miles to the east, in his recently completed city of Karakorum, the new capital of the Mongol Empire, Ögödei, the great Kahn of all the Mongols, instigator, like his father, of relentless and bloody invasions, finished something he seems to have started some years earlier. He drank himself to death.
The Mongol horde, poised on the brink of destroying Western Europe, was suddenly leaderless. Most of the army’s officers and anyone with a plan or dream of replacing Ögödei headed back to the capital. With its officers and leaders gone, the entire Mongol army left Western Europe. It never returned.
Ögödei’s self-inflicted, drunken death had saved Western civilization.
It would be centuries before those first sparks of equality, freedom, individual worth, human rights, all the philosophies that give humans dignity, would burn brightly in Western Europe. Had Ögödei lived, that spark would have been extinguished and five centuries later a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we are all created equal, would not have been born. An alcoholic Mongol helped make America.
The European Invasion
It is now reasonably argued that Columbus was not the first European to reach America. Or, in his case, almost reach North America. Various legends or myths credit far earlier visits. The earliest of these was the legendary trip in the middle of the 6th Century A.D. by St. Brendan, an Irish monk known to history as “St. Brendan the Voyager”. As the story goes, St. Brendan with a company of 18 or more monks, reached a beautiful land after a voyage of seven years. There is little detail in the legend that identifies where St. Brendan actually landed, but it carries a certain amount of popular weight in Ireland.
A far more accurate and archeologically supported claim is that of the Vikings. The first Europeans, for whom there is solid archeological evidence as to their arrival in North America, were Norse sailors traveling west from Greenland. In the year 985 a Norseman, Erik the Red, founded a settlement on that island. In 1001 Erik’s son, Leif, left Greenland and is believed to have explored the northeast coast of North America and spent at least one winter in what is now Canada. Norse sagas suggest, though don’t prove, that Viking sailors explored the Atlantic coast of North America down as far as the Caribbean. Their presence in America, however, was confirmed in 1963 when the ruins of some Norse building dating to the tenth century were discovered at L'Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland.
According to Welsh legend. Madoc (ap Owain Gwynedd) was a Welsh prince who is purported to have discovered America in 1170. How a continent full of people can be “discovered” is subject to question, of course, but so is the voyage itself.
Madoc and one of his numerous brothers are supposed to have set sail from Wales with a small fleet of boats. The legends say they found a distant land where a hundred men disembarked to start a settlement. Madoc returned to Wales and after recruiting enough men and women to fill ten ships, set out again for his new colony. Neither Madoc nor any of his would-be colonists were ever seen again. Without the slightest evidence, the story gets wilder. Madoc and his followers are purported to have travelled around America, up and down its rivers and making contact with native peoples, finally settling somewhere on the Great Plains. What seems to have given this story its impetus was the push by England during the reign of Elizabeth to offer whatever “proof” that could possibly be used to bolster England’s claim to the continent.
None of these early voyages or settlements, if they occurred at all, produced any lasting effects, other than some interesting stories, but they were stories that would be told across Europe and inspire others to look toward North America with growing interest.
The voyages of Christopher Columbus were different. Though Columbus never actually saw the North American mainland, news of his journeys spread across Europe. This was hard news, not merely legends. With the competitive forces that were growing among European nations such as Spain, Britain and France, interest in this “New World” would have helped push other explorers to see what was out there.
In terms of North American history, one of the more important voyages to the continent was that of a Venetian sailor named “Giovanni Caboto” or John Cabot, as he was known to the British. Most likely inspired by tales of the Columbus discoveries, Cabot, with a crew of 18 men set sail from Bristol, England in 1497. Like Columbus, he was seeking a shorter route to the spices of Asia. Sailing northwest he is believed to have landed in either Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia or Maine where he claimed land for King Henry VII of England. In 1498 Cabot set out on a second voyage. This trip seems to have been much more focused. According to historical records, Cabot commanded five ships and as many as 300 men. They also brought what appear to have been trade items, suggesting Cabot saw trade possibilities among people he likely found there.
Very little is known about this second voyage. For many years, it was believed that Cabot and his five ships were lost at sea. That might not be the case. In recent years, evidence has been found that places Cabot in England in 1500 suggesting that while he made it back, the voyage was considered of no value. Cabot's voyages were later to provide the foundation for British claims to North America and the beginning of England’s eventual empire. At the time, however, it was Cabot's reports of the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland that were more significant. To this day, since the Cabot voyage of 1497, fishing vessels from dozens of countries ply the fisheries off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
By the end of the fifteenth century most Europeans realized that Columbus had not found a shorter route to Asia but a "New World." Sadly for Columbus, and thanks to Martin Waldseemüller, a German geographer, that New World was not named after Columbus. In 1507 Waldseemüller published a book in which he accepted the assertion of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and cartographer, who claimed that he had landed on the American mainland before Columbus. In the book Waldseemüller names the new land "America” after the cartographer. Americans should be forever grateful that he didn’t name the new continent “Vespucci”.
The first detailed exploration of North America by Europeans took place in 1513 under Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who landed on the Florida coast near the present city of St. Augustine. Evidently, Ponce de Leon was seeking two valuable treasures: gold and the fountain of youth. There is no evidence that he found either, but it was becoming clear that this new land was full of promise.
That promise was made real for Europeans in 1521 when Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire and took control of their fabulous gold and silver mines. This was followed in 1531 when an expedition led by Francisco Pizarro destroyed the Inca Empire of Peru, and seized the Inca silver mines. Both Spanish leaders are responsible for the wholesale butchery of thousands of Aztec and Inca Indians, but the incalculable wealth they sent back to Europe encouraged others to try their luck and convinced other nations to sail for America.
Attracted by continent-wide reports of Spanish treasure ships carrying their stolen Aztec and Inca gold back to the coffers of Spain, their bitter enemy, and electrified by the news of successful raids upon these ships by Francis Drake, England began to take interest in the New World and so did France. In 1524 French King Francis I sent Giovanni da Verrazano, on a voyage of exploration to North America. Verrazano explored the eastern coastline of North America actually landing in North Carolina. He sailed north, past the entrance to the Hudson River and then sailed past Long Island and continued north near what is now Maine and Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. He was unsuccessful in his primary mission, the discovery of a route to the Pacific Ocean, but he gave France some claim to parts of the continent by right of discovery, a fact that would be significant in the making of America in the years ahead. All of these earlier voyages were essentially exploratory in nature, most of them with the search for gold or for a route to the spices of Asia as the main goal. It is with the earliest true settlements that the proper story of America begins.
The first attempt at an English colony in North America was on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Originally consisting of 100 householders, it was founded in 1585. A year earlier Sir Walter Raleigh had been granted a patent by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony in America. From the outset, the colony ran into problems. Food shortages and attacks by Native Americans reacting to provocations by the would-be colonists, helped bring the first attempt to an end. In 1587, Raleigh sent out another group of colonists consisting of 90 men, 17 women and 9 children under John White. White returned to England to procure more supplies, but the war with Spain delayed his return to Roanoke. By the time he finally returned three years later, the colony had vanished, leaving behind one of the enduring mysteries of early America.
The real significance of the Roanoke story is not the mystery or the obvious dangers and difficulties these first European pioneers endured. It is the determination of those men, women and children that stands out, ordinary human beings who ignored the dangers and hardships to leave everything they knew to follow a dream and try to build a home in what someday would be a nation. Without them, there would be no nation.
Tobacco and Early America
In May 1607, under a charter from King James I, the “Virginia Company” colonists landed on Jamestown Island to establish an English colony on the James River. Like the earlier attempt at Roanoke, the colonists faced extreme difficulties. Disease, continuing attacks by neighboring Powhatan Indians and serious food shortage ravaged the colony. The only thing that seems to have kept the effort going was the leadership of Captain John Smith.
Smith left for England in 1609 and the following winter was disastrous for the colonists. It became known as the "Starving Time". Only 60 of the original 214 settlers at Jamestown managed to survive. That June, with the tiny population decimated, it appeared that this attempt to establish a colony was beyond salvage and the survivors decided to abandon the struggling settlement.
At the crucial moment, with the survivors having already abandoned the site, and in one of those moments that helped make America, Lord De La Ware, and his supply ships arrived with additional supplies. The timely arrival encouraged another attempt, but the struggles continued. In addition to all the other problems there was a major factor missing. Some form of staple crop or local industry was needed.
It was John Rolfe who supplied the answer. Rolfe, who had come from England in the spring of 1609, had adopted a strange new habit that was captivating London. It was called “smoking” and Rolfe had noted its widespread acceptance. He believed the logical crop for the new colony was a plant known as tobacco, the source of the strange habit. Somehow he acquired the seeds of Nicotiana Tabaccum, which was the mild plant cultivated and jealously guarded by the Spanish and Portuguese in their tropical colonies. It took him more than two years but he finally produced a small crop, which he shipped immediately to England.
The results were beyond his expectations and it was here in America that the seeds of tobacco's massive conquests were sown. His sweet smelling "Virginia tobacco" as it soon became known, met with the loud approval of the London tobacco buyers and the demand was almost immediate. Settlers in Jamestown, who had been content with growing corn, began to plant tobacco. In addition to helping save Jamestown, John Rolfe achieved another claim to fame. In 1614 he married a young Native American woman also well known to American history. Her name was Pocahontas.
The tobacco growers and merchants faced a few hurdles. Among them was that for both religious and economic reasons, England’s King James, who had succeeded Queen Elizabeth I to the throne, did not approve of the habit. He continued to harass the Virginia Company, complaining that they were convincing the colonists into basing their economy on a single crop. Undoubtedly, James could have issued an outright ban on the sale or consumption of tobacco, but he had other considerations. The crop was saving the colony. More than that, it helped turn Jamestown into a commercial success. Furthermore, tax on tobacco played a major role in maintaining the Royal Treasury so while James continued to give his verbal disapproval, he quietly and eagerly continued to collect the taxes tobacco provided.
Elsewhere in the New World other colonists were attempting to grow tobacco, but the short growing seasons of the North or local regulations prevented it from becoming a major crop. In Massachusetts, there was strong opposition on moral grounds, while in Connecticut the legal code associated tobacco users with “common idlers." However, as the economic value of tobacco advanced such opposition diminished. Fortunes were being made.
America had given tobacco to the world and as the years passed, profits from tobacco continued to help build America.
Slaves Arrive in America
The first Africans landed in America in 1619, not far from Jamestown, Virginia. They had been taken from a captured Spanish slave ship. Interestingly, they arrived as indentured servants, not as slaves. In their characteristic religious zeal, the Spanish usually baptized their slaves, but England held that no one baptized as a Christian could be owned as a slave. Eventually, like other indentured servants, some earned their freedom.
It was not an unusual way for people to arrive. Estimates suggest that as many as half of all immigrants to the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries came as indentured servants. To secure passage to America, many signed contracts to pay for their passage and upkeep by working for a set period of time, ranging from four to seven years. For many, it was an unpleasant, even fatal experience, but if they survived, once their term of servitude was up and they regained their freedom, they were able to take part in the American experiment.
It was very different for the majority of Africans who arrived. Few, if any, came of their own choosing. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, almost every African who reached America came as terrified, brutalized cargo aboard filthy slave ships.
Technically, American slavery began in 1654, when an African named John Casor, who arrived as an indentured servant, became the first legally recognized slave in America. By that date, “legal recognition” aside, the reality was that most blacks in America, whether they arrived as indentured servants or not, were in fact slaves, with little or no hope of ever gaining their freedom. In itself, the legal recognition of one black human as a slave was not a defining moment, except to Mr. Casor, but in a larger sense it signaled that a momentous line had been crossed in the making of America. From that moment the nation and the concept of America would, for more than two centuries, be far different from what it might have been.
At first, slavery spread relatively slowly from Virginia, the first English colony in North America where there was good-quality soil for large plantations of high-value cash crops. By the end of the 17th century, however, slavery was part of the colonial culture and becoming firmly entrenched, especially throughout the South. The few voices raised against it were easily drowned out by the cheers of its supporters and by the deafening silence of everyone else. The day of reckoning would come, but no one could have known then, what slavery would mean to the making of America.
Voyage of the Mayflower
Perhaps the most common word used to characterize the voyage of the Mayflower is the word “iconic”. The story of unbounded courage, perseverance and faith, the landing at Plymouth Rock and the first thanksgiving celebration in America, has come to symbolize the entirety of the early European settlement of America, but it is shrouded in myth and fantasy and outright propaganda.
In September 1620, an overcrowded, old merchant ship called the “Mayflower” set sail from Plymouth, England. Its destination was the East Coast of North America, somewhere near the Chesapeake Bay. Onboard were 102 passengers and a crew of about 30.
Setting off across the North Atlantic in September wasn’t their first mistake, but it was the biggest. For modern vessels the North Atlantic in the autumn can be deadly. Huge storms can pummel the sea and anything on it for days. Almost immediately the Mayflower ran into headwinds that sometimes pushed her backwards. The trip that should have taken the Mayflower a month took nearly two. The far bigger problem was the fact that when the battered ship and its passengers arrived in America, winter was fast approaching and they were hundreds of miles north of where they planned to be. They were on their own.
That winter, disease and starvation killed 53 colonists and half the Mayflower crew. The only reason anyone survived was the discovery of Native America caches of corn, beans and other edibles. It was outright theft, but it saved their lives.
Later, an English-speaking Pawtuxet Indian named “Squanto” or “Tisquantum”, helped the colonists form an alliance with the local native Americans, who gave them food and taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash. At the end of the next summer, the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first successful harvest with a three-day festival of thanksgiving. It was an event that quickly became part of America’s mythological history as the first thanksgiving in America, completely ignoring the fact that Native Americans had been celebrating the autumn harvest for centuries. Nor is the myth of the first thanksgiving the only myth connected to the “Pilgrims”, a name they weren’t given until the 1870’s. And they didn’t land at Plymouth Rock, a fifteen-foot long boulder that first appears in the historical record almost a hundred years after the Mayflower colonists disembarked.
Why then, if so much of the story is suspect, do school children across America dress up as Pilgrims or Indians to celebrate an event that never took place? Why do Americans pay homage to a big lump of rock that none of those so-called Pilgrims paid any attention to?
The answer is that the story has become larger and more important than the history. Stories help make a nation, and America is no different in the fantasies it has created than any other country.
All the fantasy aside, the “Pilgrims” did however write and sign a contract in which the settlers consented to follow the rules and regulations they would establish amongst themselves for the sake of order and survival. It was called the “Mayflower Compact”. It was the first written form of self-government established in what is now the United States and it was one more important step in making America.
The Honey Bee Immigration
Of all the new settlers arriving in America, the arrival of the European honeybee has been one of the least noticed and most important immigrations. The familiar, industrious, incredibly useful little insect arrived on the East Coast with European colonists in the early 1600’s. Two hundred and fifty years later the honeybee occupies the entire continent and it has profoundly helped make America.
This small European immigrant was vital economically to the early European colonization of the United States. In addition to producing honey and beeswax, the honey bee’s ability to pollinate the European plants brought by the human immigrants made it possible for early Americans settlers to create a varied, viable and profitable agriculture. Without this busy little immigrant, America would have missed out on the early enjoyment of apples, peaches, plums, lemons, limes, numerous other fruits and berries, countless types of flowers and, of course, honey.
The phrase “American as apple pie” would be meaningless without the honeybee.
By all accounts, Johnny Appleseed was a strange man, but he is the heart of one of America’s most enduring and favorite legends. His real name was John Chapman. He was born in Massachusetts in 1774. According to the legend, Chapman’s lifelong dream was to plant apple trees across America so that no one would ever go hungry. He began by collecting apple seeds from cider mills and putting them into small bags that he could give to people he met on his extensive travels or who were headed west.
Though he was a shrewd businessman, leasing land and starting nurseries to hold on to his land, he was also an eccentric. He is reported to have walked alone through dense and dangerous wilderness regions carrying no weapons of any kind. He was usually poorly dressed and walked barefoot except when he managed to find an old pair of sandals or moccasins. It is said that he never chopped down a tree or harmed any living thing, not even insects. From Native Americans to settlers he was respected and welcomed by everyone.
For forty years he traveled across most of the eastern states and across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa planting apple seeds and creating apple orchards. Perhaps John Chapman didn’t contribute to the making of America at the level of a Thomas Jefferson or a Ben Franklin, but his story is uniquely American. He was just an ordinary man who enriched his nation’s culture and its view of itself through the way he lived and through his apple trees.